What if purgatory was a Gestapo police state in contemporary Marseilles? Once again, Christian Petzold’s romantic waltz of Hollywood dreamscape and grounded emotional reality is not so much a distracting contrivance in the case of Transit as a compelling abstraction. Petzold’s story of refugee Georg (Franz Rogowski), assuming the identity of a dead writer under France’s enemy occupation, is not only attuned to the rigorous demands of human emotion but reconciles these rigid laws of feeling beneath a dramatic framework as achingly romantic, enchanting, suspenseful and quixotic as anything by metaphysical dramatists Hitchcock, Preminger, Reed or Sirk.
Narrowly avoiding capture in the mainland, Georg walks into the port city Marseilles hoping to find passage to Mexico. There he is approached by a pale and spectral Marie (Paula Beer) whose eyes light up and instantly fade when she sees him. Georg bears a passing resemblance to her dead husband, a famous writer whose identity Georg has stolen. After encountering her, Georg becomes entranced by Marie and, after a brief dalliance with the widow, hopes to convince her to leave Marseilles. This is a hopeless endeavour for Georg, as hopeless as Marie’s own stubborn confidence that her husband will miraculously turn up in the port city.
If one may recall, here is a similar tendency towards futility in Petzold’s previous feature Phoenix, a film’s whose story centers a woman whose search for answers regarding her capture by Nazi forces—and subsequent condemnation to the Jewish deathcamps—becomes a fruitless attempt to reconcile with the lover who betrayed her. In the Hollywood noir tradition, Petzold’s Phoenix is less clinical investigation into crime as it is searing soul search, and in the case of Transit, an investigation into the mysterious impulses of desire that lure us from our rational state of being.
But where Petzold’s modernist, sometimes subversive, films have drawn on the traditions classical Hollywood formats to find a measure of resolve amid the harsh conditions of reality, in Transit Petzolds devotion to classical frameworks no longer liberates the soul but takes on a Kafkaesque form of the traps and mazes which sentence us to these frameworks. Curiously, Kafka unfolds less in Marseille’s ghettos and more in Georg’s own state of being; at every opportunity to toward a rational decision, Georg is enticed by the straying paths of compulsion and irrationality.
The film however intends to define the parameters of that irrationality. Feeding into one another’s desperate hopelessness may at first seem like a wade through eternal disappointment but Petzold, who forges such beautiful relationships keeping his characters from experiencing ultimate happiness, shows us—in their half-filled cups—how characters motivate themselves, how the everlasting need to fill that incompleteness becomes our self-sustaining lust for life.
An unexpectedly moving love triangle forms in Transit’s latter half when Georg finds that Marie has taken up a lover in Marseilles. A doctor who, like him, is trying to find passage to Mexico but is, too, drawn to the hopelessly optimistic Marie. For them, damnation is always two steps behind and paradise two steps ahead. Between Georg and Marie’s potential for happiness, and the the potentially devastating truth Georg keeps from her, heaven and hell are subsumed in the an everlasting melodramatic dilemma—a happy ending always in sight but never in reach.